The Desert Camel Experiment

Camels in America's Southwest

by Joe Zentner

It was during the 19th century that the camel, of all creatures, became a part of the fabled story of the deserts of the Southwest.  The animal’s history in the United States, however, began far earlier, in 1701, when a wealthy sea captain named Crowninshield brought a male and female to Salem, Massachusetts, where he exhibited them as curiosities.  A few other camels were imported for exhibition over the next century and a half.

The U. S. Military Takes Notice

A U. S. Army explorer of the American West, Major George H. Crossman, recommended to Congress in 1836 that the Army should experiment with the use of camels since the chief desert problem for the traditional military animals was lack of water and forage.  Camels could go longer without water than horses or mules.

In the late 1840s, a group of junior army officers engaged in protecting the United States’ southwestern frontier – a terrain seriously deficient in the grass and water needed by cavalry horses and pack mules – began to think seriously about camels.  One officer, Major Henry Wayne, was particularly enthusiastic about the concept.  A West Point graduate, he investigated the subject of camels, including the different breeds and their economic usefulness in arid climates.



Wayne learned that there are two distinct species: the one-humped, or Arabian camel, Camelus dromedarius, known popularly as the “ship of the desert” and used primarily as a saddle animal; and the two-humped, or Bactrian, Camelus bactrianus, a heavier, slower-moving beast of burden.  Over time, the major became convinced that climatic conditions in western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California corresponded to the mean temperatures within the parallels of latitude that defined what he referred to as “Camel Land.”  In their natural environment, camels moved faster, carried more freight, and required less water and forage than horses or mules.  Wayne eventually made a formal recommendation to the War Department that the importation of camels be undertaken in order to test the feasibility of a camel cavalry.

Camel in Borrego Spring
A metal sculpture of camels near Borrego Springs, Ca.

Politicians Endorse Camels

Wayne’s idea reached Jefferson Davis, a U. S. Senator from Mississippi, who was then chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and who later would become President of the Confederate States of America.  Davis liked the idea.  He was aware that the French had used camels with marked success in Egypt during the Napoleonic campaigns.

The idea for importing camels was eagerly endorsed by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a young U. S.  Navy lieutenant.  In 1850, while surveying Death Valley, the officer thought of the hardy animals, then virtually unknown in the Western Hemisphere.  Beale and Davis agreed that camels could conceivably help develop the recently acquired southwestern territories.  Camels were swift and strong and could penetrate regions into which burros, horses and even mules could not go without ample supplies of water.  Davis imagined American soldiers astride dromedaries chasing hostile Indians off trails that crossed emigrant routes.  He envisioned camels carrying small artillery cannon on their humps, advancing Old Glory farther and farther into the west and south.

Davis had commanded an army regiment during the Mexican War.  He understood something about the problems of military and civilian communication and travel in arid regions.  He wanted surveying work done on a transcontinental railroad route that would close the gap between the commerce of the eastern states and the Pacific coast, thereby permitting the South to share the economic advantages of the China trade and the development of gold fields in California.  Davis became so fascinated by the idea that he stayed up late many nights translating, with the assistance of his wife, a French work on the military use of camels.  Eventually, $30,000 was appropriated by Congress to purchase 50 camels and hire 10 camel drivers.

A Vermont senator, George Perkins Marsh, then got into the act.  One of America's first students of ecology, Marsh published two works on the camel.  In this hardy animal he saw a way to end the government’s seemingly endless conflict with the Indians.  “The habits of the Indians much resemble those of the nomadic Arabs,” wrote Marsh in 1854, “and the introduction of the camel among them would modify their modes of life as much as the use of the horse has done.  For a time, to be sure, possession of this animal would perhaps only increase their powers of mischief, but it might in the long run provide the means of raising Indians to a state of semi-civilized life.  Products of the camel (wool, skin and flesh) would prove of inestimable value to Indian tribes, which otherwise are fated to perish alongside the buffalo.”

Camel with pack
Camels were swift and strong and could penetrate regions into which burros, horses and even mules could not go without ample supplies of water. 

Natural History of Camels

Camels were American for millions of years before any member of the human family ever appeared in this hemisphere.  The camel family evolved here and spread to the Eastern Hemisphere via a well-traveled land bridge from Alaska to Siberia a million years ago.  One species of true camel persisted in California until 15,000 years ago, late into the Ice Ages, and the South American branch, which includes llamas, still flourishes today.  Some of the latter are the only members of the family still persisting in the wild.  All the Old World camels have long since submitted to domestication.

Camels thrive on sparse desert vegetation, thorny plants, and dried grasses that other beasts of burden consider to be inedible.  The camel’s legendary ability to go endless miles and days without water was long based on the false assumption that it “stores water” in its hump.  It does not.  The animal's ability to endure blazing temperatures with a minimum of drinking water stems from its unusual metabolism and fantastic cooling system.  A camel can lose up to 40 percent of its body weight in water without diminishing the fluid content of its blood.  (A twelve- percent loss is fatal to man.)  Undue water loss from sweating is prevented because the animal’s “normal” temperature can vary over a wide range.

In comparatively cool temperatures, the camel obtains sufficient moisture for survival from food plants, frequently becoming independent of drinking water for months at a time.  When it does drink after a prolonged dry spell, it can take in as much as 25 gallons of water within a few minutes.

Camels are ideally equipped to walk over sand.  Their feet have the third and fourth toes united by thick, fleshy pads tipped with nail-like hooves.  Because the foot is flexible, the camel is extremely sure-footed.  Pads on chest and knees support the camel's body when it kneels—every time it is mounted or dismounted, loaded or unloaded.

It is as a pack animal that the camel truly excels.  A strong mule can tote up to 300 pounds.  A packhorse can carry somewhat less.  But a dromedary easily hauls 600 pounds over a 30-mile distance in a day, while a Bactrian can carry up to 1,000 pounds.  It is virtually impossible to overload a camel.  When, in a camel's considered opinion, the load strapped to it is excessive; it simply will not rise.  Neither cursing nor beatings will budge an overloaded camel.

Surprisingly, some 3,000,000 camels were employed in military capacities during World War I.  And 50,000 camels were used in World War II despite the widespread motorization of cavalry forces.  The German army used camel trains to carry gasoline to their tanks stranded beyond over-extended supply lines in southern Russia.

Camels Come to Texas

After Congress appropriated money for the camel project, Major Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter were sent to the eastern Mediterranean in a Navy ship, the Supply, to buy the first camels.  An experienced horse trader, Wayne spent considerable time investigating camel lore and studying the offerings in the camel markets of Egypt.  It was time well spent.  All but one of the 33 animals he bought at an average of $250 apiece survived the tough, three-month ocean voyage to Indianola, Texas.  Two colts (camel young were so called in the King James version of the Bible, and the Americans adopted the term) were born on the trip.

The ship dropped anchor in the Bay of Matagorda eight miles from Indianola on the afternoon of April 29, 1856.  The camels were in the care of native drivers, grouped together by the Americans under the generic name “Arabs,” regardless of their ethnic mix.  Wearing red blankets, the animals were transported to the wharf at Powder Point, three miles from Indianola.  Touching solid earth after their long confinement, the camels reared, kicked, cried out and broke halters, while the inhabitants of Indianola and Powder Point happily concluded that a free circus had come to town.

When the drivers, in their colorful red coats and blue pants, rode into Houston, signaling their approach by the jingling of large bells suspended from the camels’ necks, they created a sensation.  People watched entranced as the obedient beasts kneeled and rose on command.  A Texas newspaper poet wrote eloquently in celebration of the exotic visitors in columns of the Indianola Bulletin, while a Miss Mary A. Shirkey of Victoria, Texas, knitted a rather smelly pair of socks for President Franklin Pierce, under whose administration this experiment had taken place, from the coat of a government camel.  For this courtesy, she received appropriate thanks, and Major Wayne thought that perhaps camel hair would be a spin-off from the experiment that might have economic value.

In February 1857, a second cargo, consisting of 41 camels, landed on the Texas coast.  A permanent camel camp was established soon thereafter at Camp Verde near San Antonio, where various experiments were tried.  Soon it was discovered that six camels could do the work of 12 horses and in 42 hours less time, and that they climbed trails that wagons could not manage.  Private interests, as a cover for the importation of slaves, in time delivered a third load of camels at Indianola.  These camels, having served their purpose, were turned loose to roam the Texas coastal country and were eventually killed off by cattlemen.

Camels Go West

In the late 1850s, camels were used to survey a route for a wagon road from Fort Defiance in Arizona to the Colorado River.  The Santa Fe Railroad and U. S. Highway 66 subsequently followed this route.  Lieutenant Beale of the U. S. Army hired “Greek George,” an Oriental driver, as one of his assistants, and some time later lent him to John Butterfield.

Originally a New York stagecoach driver, and years later, founder of the American Express Company, Butterfield contracted with the government in 1858 to carry mail between the Missouri River and San Francisco.  Uncle Sam’s camels, with “Greek George” in command, were used in building parts of the road later known as the Butterfield Route.  Thus, some of the historical trails across southwestern desert country are to the camels’ credit, in a realization (however partial) of Jefferson Davis’ dreams.


From 1858 to 1860, Jefferson Davis’ successor as Secretary of War, J. B. Floyd, repeatedly urged Congress to appropriate funds with which to purchase 1000 more camels.  But the Civil War soon ignited, and the camel idea was largely forgotten.  The very fact that Jefferson Davis, a Confederate, was the camels’ chief sponsor prejudiced many Union officers and men against the project and doomed it forever.

Also, horse traders in Texas feared that the camel would put them out of business.  Horses resented the presence of camels in the stables.  Texans, who at first had looked upon camels as curiosities, later found them contemptible, and opposition to camels sprang up everywhere.  Brownsville, Texas, in time passed an ordinance forbidding anyone from driving camels through the city’s streets.

Whatever Happened to the Imported Camels?

The camels of Texas, purchased under a grant from the U. S. Government, were seized by the Confederates at the outbreak of the Civil War.  Somewhat strangely, however, the Southern camel-kidnappers had little interest in the plan that their own President, Jefferson Davis, had sponsored in the Senate.

Private American companies were not, however, blind to the potential profits to be made in camel transport.  Bactrian camels were imported from Manchuria to San Francisco in 1860 and put to work as pack animals in Nevada.  More were imported in 1862; these were quickly reshipped at a profit to British Columbia to serve in pack trains.

In the U. S., in the early 1860s, many southwestern forts were abandoned as troops were needed for battles in the East, and the forts’ camels wandered away.  Thirty of the creatures eventually turned up in Los Angeles.  A special corral was built for them on Second Street, which is today in the heart of the City of Angels.  Most other camels were simply let loose.

In 1863, a camel-express service was tried between New San Pedro and Tucson, Arizona, but with only limited success.  Around that same time a group of Mexicans loaded up some camels on wagons with the intention of making beasts of burden out of them, but abused them so severely that most of the animals died.

In the middle 1860s, a company of Frenchmen in the Southwest obtained two of the camels that had survived the Mexican abuse.  They nursed the animals back to health.  By 1870 the pair had increased to a herd of 25, all doing labor for their masters.  The animals were kept on a Nevada ranch, near the Carson River, from which they carried salt and hay to the Comstock gold and silver mines.  Sometime later, these camels were sent to Arizona where they hauled ore from the Silver King mine to Yuma.  They were finally turned loose in the desert near Maricopa Wells.

In 1885, a young boy of five whose father commanded the army garrison at Fort Selden, New Mexico, saw an extraordinary sight that he recollected much later in life.  “One day a curious and frightening animal with a blobbish head, long and curving neck, and shambling legs, moseyed around the garrison .  .  .  the animal was one of the old army camels.”  The little boy would later become known to the world as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.

In 1891, nine camels roaming on the western edge of Death Valley appeared, silhouetted against the sky, before the eyes of two gold miners who thought they were seeing ghosts.  The miners, Shep Searcy and Charlie Fisher, were lying down at the time, trying to drink from a mud puddle, when Shep said: “Do you see what I think I see?”  Fisher replied: “I don’t know what you see, Shep, but it looks like Barnum's circus to me.”  After that brief conversation, the camels sniffed, snorted, and ran away.  When the miners reported their brief encounter to residents of a nearby town, people thought they were crazy.

In October 1891, camels, suddenly appearing from the desert, caused a cattle stampede outside Harrisburg, Arizona.  Men stood around, amazed, not knowing what to do, when Harry Wharton, one of the original camel-teamsters, approached to stroke one of the camels across the knees.  The camel readily knelt.  Harry then shot the animal dead.  That night, two Mexicans stripped the carcass and sold the meat to an unsuspecting butcher.

In the 1890s, passengers on Southern Pacific trains reported seeing gaunt camels pacing the sands of Arizona Territory.  In 1901, in western Arizona, a Southern Pacific train ran over and killed one of the animals.

One historian of the Southwest will assure you that a crew surveying the international boundary between Arizona and Mexico in 1901 reported the last authentic sighting of a camel.  Another is convinced that an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe crew told the truth about seeing one near Wickenburg, Arizona in 1913.  A third historian is intrigued by reports of camels stampeding horses near Banning, California, 25 miles west of Palm Springs, in 1929.

In 1975, while living in Malibu, California, I met a part-time prospector who, although, he himself had never seen one, assured me that camels still roamed deep in Baja California’s rugged desert country.  Such rumors are faint but lingering reminders of the kind of horror members of our species alone can perpetrate, and of the remarkable powers of endurance of other forms of life.

“The attempt to make use of camels in the Southwest might have succeeded under different conditions,” wrote the late Walter L. Fleming, dean of Vanderbilt University and an authority on the experiment in all of its ramifications.  The operation lost its strongest advocate when Jefferson Davis left the War Department.  The camels’ best friend, Major Wayne, who had both theoretical and practical knowledge of the animals, had joined the Confederate army in 1860.  Also, rapid expansion of a rail network in the Southwest made transportation by beasts of burdens a picturesque but historical anachronism.

 One of God's most incredible creatures - the camel.

Failure of the U. S. Camel Cavalry was more due to Americans’ attitude toward the animals than to any shortcoming on the camels’ part.  In their native lands, camels are of such value that they are treated with great care, but to many Americans they would forever remain a foreign abomination.  Moreover, they would not suffer neglect or cruelty without swift retaliation.  Think about that the next time you pause at a zoo to observe one of God's most incredible creatures.



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